In the first of her new ‘Spooky Film Club’ on The X-Cast blog, Sam Turton tackles Guillermo Del Toro’s Gothic haunted house piece, Crimson Peak…When I started my English degree at University, I couldn’t wait until we studied gothic literature; we sunk our teeth into The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho and An Interview with the Vampire, to name but a few. As I mentioned in the blog about PMP, I love all things gothic. Then, a few years down the line, my housemate introduced me to the films of Guillermo del Toro; I started with Pan’s Labyrinth and never looked back. Then in 2015, del Toro released Crimson Peak upon the world with minimal yet effective promotion. I was hooked from the first trailer and the first poster. It seemed to embody everything I loved about del Toro and gothic literature (del Toro is a big gothic fan); the addition of flavour-of-the-month Tom Hiddleston didn’t hinder its appeal either.
The opening hook of the film is perfect. We are greeted with heavy breathing, a fragile looking Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in a blood stained white nightgown against a snowy backdrop, and her breathy yet steadfast narration telling us “ghosts are real.” The symbolism is there from the beginning: she is pure as the white snow, he golden hair tumbling around her shoulders, but she has somehow been tainted by scarlet blood. The contrast is beautiful and striking and evokes that oh so traditional gothic image of the damsel in distress.
Ghosts are introduced as a concept straight away, too; Edith tells us that her mother died when she was a child, and we are taken to a young Edith’s bedroom where she is laid in bed, terrified at the ominous noises. A ragged black figure appears in the corridor, shocking us as much as it does Edith. The creepiest thing about del Toro’s ghosts in this film is how they maintain their humanoid appearance; there is no denying that these are ghosts of dead people. They have a beautiful smoky, ethereal quality about them; they are terrifying and compelling. But, we are also instantly made aware that these ghosts are not malevolent. The ghost of her mother has come to warn Edith of… Crimson Peak! Retrospectively, we could also see this scene as Edith’s mother warning her to stay away from men; to avoid the temptation of eloquent, handsome young suitors as they may not always be what they seem.
It doesn’t take too much stretch of the imagination to see that Crimson Peak is a fairly feminist film. Most of the male characters in the film meet a sticky end if they try and help or hinder the progression of the women, or the female characters sideline them. Special mention has to go here to Jessica Chastain for her portrayal of Lady Lucille Sharpe, Hiddleston’s character’s sister. Hiddleston might be the major star in this film, but I don’t think it’s any accident that his character, Lord Thomas Sharpe, is quite simpering and boring in comparison to Chastain’s portrayal- she has clearly attended the Alan Rickman School of Being a Baddie.
It’s very easy to make comparisons between Lucille and great female gothic characters, most specifically Mrs. Danvers from du Maurier’s Rebecca and Bertha Rochester from Bronte’s Jane Eyre; she carries around with her a clanging bunch of keys, resents the new lady of the manor, and has an exceedingly haughty disposition a la Danvers; goes on a crazed killing spree around the house, again resents the new mistress, and attempts to kill (and in Lucille’s case, succeed) the people who get in her way, a la Rochester. We can also see a theme emerging through Lucille that Rice makes very prominent in An Interview with the Vampire and Stoker shows in Dracula: if you desire to be an untraditional woman, then be prepared to be punished.
In less delicate terms, if you are a sexually active woman and not in a happily settled marriage then you are damned. In Dracula, Lucy Westenra is playing quite a few men and is refusing to settle down: Dracula bites her. In Interview, Lestat and Louis pick off promiscuous women. In Crimson Peak, Lucille is a deranged spinster who is having sexual relations with her brother. Yet, we can argue that everything Lucille is has grown from being neglected by her parents, but she is still punished for this. She says herself that the only love her and Thomas had ever known was from each other. Should we feel sorry for her? At the end of the day, she is a mentally ill young woman. Let me know what you think.
Through Lucille, we also see del Toro playing with gender stereotypes. In the murder of Edith’s father at the hands of Lucille, she enters his gentleman’s club dressed as a man. She is a strong confident woman infiltrating the male sphere by disguising the thing that would giver her away: her femininity. Is del Toro telling us that women shouldn’t be taken for granted? Just because someone is a woman, doesn’t mean that she cannot be deadly. Everyone over-looks her obvious feminine features because they are not looking for a woman because women are not allowed here: get back to the kitchen!
Del Toro provides a fabulous contrast between Lucille and Edith in many ways; the thing we notice instantly is their style of dress: when we first meet Lucille, she is wearing a dark ruby satin dress which covers her whole body, Edith is wearing a champagne coloured satin dress which exposes much of shoulders and décolleté, telling us she has nothing to hide. Lucille’s dress is old-fashioned and stiff; Edith’s dress is flowing, soft and modern. Later, we are introduced to the butterfly/moth motif: in Edith’s America, what look like golden swallowtail butterflies are dying as the seasons change and the sunlight deserts them. Lucille tells us “Beautiful things are fragile.” And that in England, there are nothing but large black moths, which love the darkness and feed on butterflies. You don’t have to go too far to see Edith as the butterfly and Lucille as the moth, a great example of foreshadowing. Yet, Edith triumphs over Lucille in the end and shows that she has adapted to her surroundings; she has adapted to the cold and the dark in lieu of the sunshine. She has metamorphosed much like a caterpillar in a chrysalis.
The audience is provided with a much more traditional feminist icon in the character of aspiring author Edith. She has been brought up by her builder father and has a clear interest in science and engineering; she is the only woman we see that wears glasses. She obviously is pro modernism and scientific advancement. This is also highlighted when her father gives her the gift of a new pen to write her novel, yet she rejects his gift stating that she would like to type it up, so as to disguise her feminine handwriting. Through Edith, we are reminded of a young Mary Shelley, especially when she delivers this magnificent burn to snob Mrs. McMichael:
Mrs. McMichael: She’s our very own Jane Austen. She died an old maid, didn’t she?
Edith Cushing: Actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelley, she died a widow.
The theme of colour is prevalent throughout the film. When in America, everything is a golden hue; it is sunny and positive. When we reach the Sharpe’s Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, England, we see a palette, which is blue, grey and dark. My favourite use of colour in the film is when we see Edith in her golden dress locked behind the wrought iron cage of the lift. She is reminiscent of a canary, the traditional litmus test for when things are going wrong. Or is Edith’s caged bird being offered up to the prowling cat that is Lucille? This metaphor can be read various ways; you can make your own minds up.
Also, everything in America is modern; Edith’s father is concerned with building for the future, he looks towards modern machinery. He is collected by Dr. McMichael (Edith’s saintly love interest) to travel to a party in a car; in England, Edith and Thomas travel to Allerdale Hall by horse and carriage. The archaic hall itself is the perfect example of old England; it looks like it has fallen straight out of Walpole’s Otranto. It is pure gothic. It is the decaying of the old in the face of the new, perfectly exemplified by Edith, as she stands in the entrance hall in her fine dress.
The Sharpes themselves are equally out of time in their well made, but old clothes; they had money once, but it has long since dissipated. Allerdale’s roof has fallen in, moths invade the attic, snow and leaves collect on the floor, and the crimson clay seeps up through the floorboards- the outside world is literally swallowing Allerdale. Nature is telling the Sharpes that their time is up; it’s time to look to the future. Thomas should have listened to Edith when she says “You’re always looking into the past, you won’t find me there. I’m here.”
I’ve not written about everything that I made notes on here, but I think I’ve said enough. I really do encourage you to watch this film if you haven’t already; if you have and didn’t like it, maybe try Crimson Peak again and give it a second chance. Again, I’d be really interested to know what your opinions are on this film, whether you disagree with me or not, and I’m looking forward to see what some of our other bloggers decide to write about.
If you would like to join our Spooky Film Club and write about movies not a world away from the paranormality of The X-Files, let us know!
You can follow Sam on Twitter @yorkshireramble.